Chameleon Clothing

Alex Cox
5 min readAug 25, 2016


We can totally do active camouflage.

Active camouflage has been a pipe dream for a ton of researchers and top military brass for thousands of years. The ability to have your soldiers and equipment blend into any environment anywhere on the planet could be the difference between winning and losing a battle. During the past ten years the U.S. military has spent 5 billion dollars in a failed attempt to make a universal camouflage for its troops.

The military was trying to make a passive uniform that fit in anywhere snow, desert, rainforest. That just isn’t really possible as they painfully found out. But active camouflage could be a lot more possible than they think.

Using e-ink display technology like you have in your Kindle or Nook you could change the color of your uniform without using much power and have that color stay even if you lost power.

A jacket that changes with your environment and the time of day. Instead of needing to put cameras all over the jacket you could just use your phone. Your phone already knows where you are and knows the time year. Your smartphone could connect to your jacket and change the color to match the climate of the area for example. If you are in the Sahara during the winter time the outerwear would change to a sandy color and if it is night time it would change to a darker color sandy color. If you are in New York City during a summer night the jacket could become a white color to make you visible in traffic or a darker color if you choose not to be seen.

If you are a soldier you could simply put a small smartphone camera behind you in the back of the collar and one in a button on your front. It just needs to approximate the colors of your surroundings to put on your jacket.

So how would this actually work?

It’s not too difficult actually and there are bunch of possible ways to do it. My favorite way is using a ton of dots of e-ink screens. Kind of like sequins these would be sewn into the fabric and the connections wires would be woven in sort of like what we saw with Google’s Project Jacquard. With the dot e-ink screens woven into the jacket and all connected to something as simple as a phone all of the dots could be individually colored based on their orientation. So say you have 200 dots on the shoulder area of the jacket an accelerometer on this panel would see that it is about perpendicular with the rest of the body and using this accelerometer data from these panels of the e-ink the phone could construct an image jacket without needing the actual jacket. Based on the phone or imbedded camera imagery the e-ink dots could be colored and changed without having to code each dot with the accelerometer data.

Using this e-ink dot panel and accelerometer combination all over the jacket the phone doing all of the processing the active camouflage organization can make a pretty accurate representation of the surrounding environment with special attention paid to the lighting. The nice thing about e-ink is that if the soldier's batteries run out on their phone the e-ink won’t suddenly turn white or lose its camouflage it will just stay set on the last color.

Since e-ink also comes in color and uses very little power the wearer would not have to worry about the jacket’s power and the e-ink colors allow for mimicking many different environments. The additional benefit is soldiers do not need to change the colors constantly, they could program it to update colors based on the environment manually, once a minute, or whenever makes sense based on the terrain they are in and any power concerns.

As I said there are many ways of embedding the e-ink onto the jacket. I like the dot method the best because it is more flexible and completely possible, but the jacket could also have a rectangular whole e-ink section sewn on. These sections would be comparably large and less flexible than the dot screen of the other method, but these larger rectangular sections could be done tomorrow. There is far less special fabric woven electronics involved. A jacket for the average user would have maybe 12 to 16 displays depending on the desired flexibility. These screens could be more easily connected to the phone. The jacket would be clunky for sure but it would perform its task and camouflage its wearer in the same way the ink dot method does just. This method could be implemented at least in hardware tomorrow since all that is needed are the e-ink screens and a couple off the shelf cameras to determine the ambient coloring and shading.

Now. The best method which is in no way possible today but would make this camouflage jacket a comfortable less conspicuous fashion accessory is to make e-ink fibers. Instead of using dots as current e-ink displays do. These fibers would essentially be an extruded e-ink pixel or dot. The fiber would contain a wire on the interior and its ink. There would be four inks (green, red, blue, and black) woven into the fabric with each fiber terminating at the seam where the wire then connects to the processor, phone or otherwise. These fibers would go both vertically and horizontally to essentially comprise the entire jacket with a light fiber backing for support. The e-ink fibers would be powered in specific areas that would allow just those fibers to express a particular color. Like how your television works by emitting varying strengths of different light colors to comprise a pixel and the color your eye ultimately interprets from the screen. Where the woven fibers intersect basically make pixels on the jacket. Changing the power in the wires to make the red, blues, greens, and blacks stronger or softer and allows the coloring to be more precise with respect to the surroundings. Using this e-ink fiber the jacket can be way more flexible and who knows maybe a fashionable thing to wear in a decade or two.



Alex Cox

Product Manager and designer writing about ideas. Living and working in SF. See more of my projects at